On Being the Real Deal
It’s odd isn’t it. We can claim to have the best set of beliefs, but our words and our actions give us away every time. Drawing attention to our status as Christians might show we are well-intentioned, but what if our words and actions don’t quite match what we say is important in our lives? We can certainly spot the fake in other people’s actions.
To use one extreme example: I understand Hitler claimed to be a Roman Catholic and had his storm troopers go into battle with “Gott mit uns” – in other words “God with us” engraved on their belt buckles, yet subsequent history with its story of more than six million Jews and gypsies murdered in concentration camps gave a lie to that claim.
While this might be thought to be an unfair example, there is a much more common and insidious way of misusing the way of Christ…claiming – but not living his teaching.
Because our modern societies are structured in such a way that many of the key decisions are made via the way set by those we helped choose as our leaders, perhaps we need to stop to check if those we offer to support are reflecting our true principles. Virtually all politicians not only claim to stand for development and fine policies, but because they want the votes, they also try to appeal to what really drives the people. For example, there would be very few politicians who would claim to be racist, but some deliberately demonstrate racist expressions and attitudes to gain the supporting votes of those whose thinking is in tune with racist sentiments, even if the motives are not admitted in public.
For example on the international stage we can probably all think of politicians who stand accused of racism from widely publicized public statements yet who emphatically insist they are free of racial bias. One possible explanation is that some of this may be designed to show that they are sympathetic to the baser instincts of large groups of voters.
As Christians we might claim to follow Jesus in sympathy with the vulnerable yet we need to be honest enough to at least admit to ourselves that the way we organise our personal lives and vote in the privacy of the election booth might, for some, reveal a truer preference to elect someone who will reflect the voter’s hidden prejudice rather than the politician who makes room for the immigrants and refugees regardless of their religion, their language or the colour of their skin.
One rather well known President in his last election campaign declaimed “The point is, you can never be too greedy” That President not only talks of improving the conditions of trade for his country but sometimes puts tariffs on the trade arrangements for poorer trading partners. We remind ourselves these policies are among those approved of by a significant proportion of a voting public who also claim to at least be Christian by self identity. Where does that leave the followers of Jesus who say they follow Jesus?
What if we too are shown to be influenced by the same sorts of issues? I think at the very least we need to be thoughtful about how our political choices line up with our values particularly if we want to give some sort of priority to following what Jesus said was important.
Would Jesus agree with the notion – that rich is good and getting very rich is really what it is all about? Well what did Jesus actually say? Luke Ch 12 verse 15 “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions” (Luke 12:15).
Jesus also reminds his listeners of the dangers of wealth in his parable about the rich farmer who acquired sufficient wealth to secure a comfortable retirement. Jesus doesn’t muck about. He actually calls him a “fool” for what he has achieved at his death. And in case anyone misses his point he says, “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21). Then he goes on with his call for his would-be disciples to deny themselves, take up the cross, and follow him. Do you remember his question in Mark’s gospel? “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36).
On reflection I suspect we don’t come across the truly wise very often – so here is an interesting speculation. If we only once in our life had a chance to meet a truly wise person – someone up there with Jesus in the wisdom stakes…only one meeting … the chance for one question…what would we ask that wise person?
Since in real life most folk rarely make the most of their fleeting opportunities to learn from the wise, I guess there is a fair chance we would mess up.
Certainly the man in the crowd in today’s reading from Luke apparently messed up big time. Instead of using his once in a lifetime opportunity to ask Jesus some insightful and profound question, the man merely wants Jesus to take his side in an inheritance dispute. Perhaps the best that can be said is that his question revealed to Jesus what was uppermost in the questioner’s mind, just as what we put our focus on in our thoughts, our conversation and choice of activities during the week ultimately shows what we really count as important.
Certainly as far as Jesus would have been concerned, the man with the inheritance problem would not have been asking an unexpected question. At that time the local rabbi was expected to be the instant arbiter on practically every legal and moral dilemma. However Jesus shows almost no interest in giving a direct answer to the man’s question. As far as Jesus is concerned, an obsession with possessions is an irrelevance when it comes to the important things of life.
Turn again to his story of the rich man gathering more and more riches – building more and more barns for his wealth, and then at the very last, finding none of his wealth counts for anything against the real issues of life. At the very least this should remind us even today that nothing owned counts for much when facing one’s death.
The parable also suggests that whatever else Jesus might have been, he was a least an acute observer of the human condition. His parable of the rich man finds plenty of modern equivalents. It is intriguing that in the centuries since, although the trappings of wealth may have changed, the same self-serving and ultimately ill-fated desire to accumulate more than we need is almost built into our society.
The insidious effects of the wealth gathering personality have been well studied by the psychologists and sociologists. In experimental studies such folk are often more willing to cheat, and more accepting of unethical behaviour. The underlying implication is that whatever good intentions we might believe ourselves to have, unfortunately the experience of being wealthy risks affecting us in ways we might not readily notice for ourselves. I guess we have all heard well off people explaining why the rich deserve their position which of course justifies behaviours that consolidate even more advantages. Is there a lesson there for us today?
For example in most nations where there is a distinct difference between the incomes of the rich and the poor, the rich often use their influence to ensure tax structures make it possible for the richest to pay less tax than would be expected for the size of their incomes. Some achieve this by setting up family trusts which have the advantage of safeguarding the family fortunes for members of the family to inherit, thus putting family members even further ahead from their poor neighbours from the date of their birth.
In this country (New Zealand), for example, the United Nations statisticians have noted that of the developed nations, New Zealand has one of the fastest growing gaps between the rich and the poor. Even in the US where there is wealth aplenty the UN statistics show the percentage of poor is even higher than in our own country. The Methodist Church in New Zealand at their last few conferences remind us of the plight of poor children in the country but despite vague promises from the nation’s decision makers and some tinkering with social services, month by month and year by year the gap stays unacceptably wide.
Since wealth also brings more personal security we can hardly blame those who work hard to improve the well-being of the family. Nor can we do much about the fact that when one is born into a country with plenty of natural resources and a comparatively sparse population that there will be a disproportionate number of wealthy individuals.
The problem rather is retaining our sense of care for others as our advantages accumulate and together finding ways to work towards a society where the key human values are safeguarded: like ensuring justice for all, like expressing compassion in a meaningful and tangible way, like not exploiting others within one’s own nation in order to increase one’s own personal position, or not notices that others at a distance are living in grinding poverty so that we can enjoy our advantages.
It is rather too easy to get ourselves into the mind-set of the rich man in Jesus’ parable.
We are assured by those who are supposed to know these things that if the food of the world was shared on an equitable basis there would be more than enough food for everyone. As things stand there are still many who are very hungry indeed and as people who claim to accept, value and live the principles Jesus taught, this should matter to us. Prayers dissociated from action will hardly help the problem.
As a church we should continually check what we are asking our politicians to do. The advantage of living in a democracy is that the people can persuade their political masters to follow the will of the people. HOWEVER The disadvantage of living in a democracy is that if the will of the people is merely to improve their personal situation (if you like…. building more barns) then nothing in the ideals of religion we claim to follow will ever be accomplished.
As a church we should be looking to how our current policies reflect our ideals. What proportion of our church income to we allocate to helping others? What issues do our leaders publicize in our church sponsored letters to the editor? Do we make use of Church newspapers? Do we invite speakers from organisations dealing with the serious public and moral issues and have we got the balance right? It would be sad if we were to fund-raise first for ourselves and almost as an afterthought, merely pretend that we reflect Jesus’ principles because we give token amounts away and placate our consciences because we also pray for the refugees, the poor and the down trodden in our prayers of intercession?
I guess most of us would be anxious to say we are not like a well known President.
Very well then…In terms of following the teaching of Jesus, what are we really like?
(The aim of this sermon, as with the other sermons on this site, is to provide a lectionary based resource to encourage people to think about their faith. If you have found the sermon to be helpful in this respect please share the website with others. If you disagree with the points made, or if you are aware of key issues which are missed, please share your thoughts in the comments section.)